Assessing the 90: Early Defensive Woes Plague Hartford Athletic in Loss to Phoenix Rising FC
The Green and Blue fought found an equalizer after a shaky start, but once again could not keep the ball out of the net for the full 90 minutes as they head home empty-handed.
The search for Hartford Athletic’s second USL Championship win of the season will return to Trinity Health Stadium next week, as an unsuccessful trip to Phoenix ended in a 3-1 loss for the Green and Blue on Saturday night.
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Hartford was pinned back from the opening whistle and struggled to recover from a shaky start throughout the game, once again dropping points after conceding a pair of late goals. In a game where Hartford head coach Tab Ramos expressed concern about an injury-thinned squad being able to last for the full 90 minutes, it seemed that his fears materialized on Saturday.
The opening 20 minutes saw the end-to-end action get started right from kickoff, as former Phoenix man Prince Saydee flew down the right wing and whipped a dangerous cross into the box in the opening seconds. The cross was bobbled by the keeper but eventually cleared by Phoenix. Despite the hot start, the chance ended up being some of the only attacking action Saydee saw through the game as things quickly went downhill for the visitors.
Immediately afterward, in his first USL Championship appearance in over a month, Hartford captain Niall Logue picked up a yellow card less than two minutes into the contest after a challenge at the top of the box. Daniel Krutzen’s powerful effort from the resulting free kick was on target, but Richard Sánchez got down in time with a sharp stop to deny the striker.
It did not take long for Phoenix to capitalize on the early momentum, as they found the back of the net just three minutes later courtesy of Danny Trejo’s team-leading fourth goal of the season. Receiving the ball on the left wing off of Manuel Arteaga’s flicked header in the midfield, he calmly split two defenders with the run before sneaking the ball past Sánchez and across the line, just beyond a sliding Tristan Hodge.
A wild start soon went from bad to worse for Hartford, who struggled to contain Pheonix and dictate any sort of tempo. Failing to keep the home under control, the opening 20 minutes of the game saw three Hartford players booked in Logue, Connor McGlynn, and Matt Sheldon.
In what seemed like a desperate attempt the stem the flow, Tab Ramos looked towards his bench just 15 minutes in for a defensive change, bringing in Robin Lapert to replace Kaveh Rad in the back line. It was unclear whether or not an injury was involved, or if this was purely a performance-based substitution.
Phoenix continued to dominate through the first half, taking advantage of a Hartford side who were shaken and struggling. They possessed 65% of the ball in the opening half, forcing a trio of saves from Sánchez. Among an abundance of dangerous attacking possession, Trejo would come inches away from a second goal in the 26th minute, as his low-driven shot flew just wide of an outstretched Sánchez’s left post.
Then, completely against the run of play, Hartford eventually found their equalizer at the stroke of halftime. Antoine Hoppenot was pulled down on the right edge of the box, winning the penalty and setting up Kyle Edwards for the most unlikely of first-half comebacks. Making no mistake, Edwards slotted the ball into the bottom left corner to knot the game at one going into the break.
Although an early yellow forced him to tread carefully throughout the game, Logue showed the value of his renewed presence in the Hartford defense, making a number of last-ditch challenges to prevent Phoenix from increasing their lead in the early stages.
Sánchez was another staple in the defense for Hartford. Despite conceding early on, the 28-year-old keeper had a first-half performance to remember, showing flashes of his prime years in Major League Soccer.
Following the early free-kick save, he came up huge once again in the 37th minute, producing one of the saves of the season so far with a confident right-handed denial of Kevon Lambert’s close-range header. The resulting corner saw yet another cross whipped in by Carlos Harvey from the right wing, which Sánchez also redirected over the bar. In an extremely one-sided first half, he was a huge part of the reason that Hartford went into the break having conceded only one goal, officially credited with three saves.
Hartford possessed only 35% of the ball and was outshot 7-3 in the opening 45 minutes, but the home side was ultimately unable to capitalize on what could have easily been a three or four-goal game at the break. While the first 20 minutes had Hartford fans fearing for the worst, the visitors did just enough to claw their way back before the half — all square.
In a similar fashion to the first half, the second 45 saw Phoenix lay on the attacking pressure in the early stages, but this time Hartford was able to keep their composure, and most importantly, keep the ball out of the back of the net.
The Green and Blue crafted a chance of their own in the 56th minute after sustaining heavy pressure, as Saydee looped a ball over the top of the defense to an onrushing Hoppenot. The searching ball bounced just beyond the outstretched foot of the experienced forward, who was otherwise in behind on goal. Once again, this was some of the only attacking action Hartford would see in the second half.
Tristan Hodge was the next Hartford player to have his name written in the referee’s book minutes later on the other end of the field, pulling down a Phoenix attacker on the edge of the box, just inches away from penalty territory. Krutzen’s inswinger off of the free kick found the feet of Harvey in the box, who skied the shot from just outside the six-yard box in the 61st minute.
As the second half went on, frustration began to set in for a Phoenix side who were severely lacking in their final execution. Lambert’s shot from outside the box in the 63rd minute was pushed away confidently by Sánchez, and minutes later Alejandro Fuenmayor would send another close-range effort against the woodwork off of a corner kick.
Sánchez would continue to keep the ball out of the net as the clock ticked into the 70th minute, slowly but surely sucking the energy out of the home crowd. He would end the night with five stops.
However, any hope of a result for Hartford was halted in the 72nd minute, as Phoenix was finally able to find the back of the net once again. A crucial miscue by Matt Sheldon in the midfield saw Carlos Harvey strip the defender of the ball, sending himself one-on-one with Sánchez with acres of space to run into from the halfway line. Left stranded in his box, there was not much a rushing Sánchez could do to prevent the go-ahead goal as Harvey calmly slotted to ball through the keeper’s legs to make it 2-1.
The goal re-energized Phoenix, who re-discovered their attacking momentum in the final 10 minutes. Eventually, despite the best efforts of Sánchez, Trejo, and Arteaga would once again link up to all but seal the win in the 81st minute. The left shoulder of Trejo would redirect a cross back across the face of goal, tapped in by Arteaga to make it a 3-1 game with just under 10 minutes to play.
In the end, yet another late pair of goals once again proved too much to overcome for Hartford, who eventually fell to their fourth-straight loss in all competitions in Phoenix. The Green and Blue were outshot 17-5 through 90 minutes, managing only two shots in the second half and possessing only 35% of the ball. Phoenix connected 495 successful passes throughout the game, more than double Hartford’s 220.
Hartford will return home next week to face Loudon United, beginning a stretch of three straight home games. They will remain at Trinity Health Stadium in six of the next seven matches through the month of June, in search of desperately-needed momentum with only one win through nine matches.
For now, it is back to the drawing board for Tab Ramos and his squad.